Game of Thrones and Dostoyevsky

Alex Lowe - 12/23/2018 6:00 PM

Game of Thrones and Dostoyevsky

Alex Lowe - 12/23/2018 6:00 PM

Glowing Blue Core Alert: Spoilers Ahead.

Four shows, alike in dignity, in fair, where we lay our scene. From ancient robots and night-dragons break to new mutiny, where Cylon blood makes Mulder and Scully’s hands unclean.

The beginning of the end of Game of Thrones is just a few short months away, and I don’t need to tell you that it’s going to be a big deal. How will it end? And in another sense, will it end at all? Will the writers put together an actual end to the drama or will they contrive a milquetoast compromise in an effort to please everyone, and shortly after burn their personal papers and move to Manitoba?

First of all, we should acknowledge that Game of Thrones belongs to a special category of show. It’s 21st century fantasy. It’s squarely within (and partly responsible for) the renaissance of event television. This type of show is wildly popular. It was written to revolve around a specific story, and it has a lot of mysteries and surprise reveals. This type of show also has a certain amount of literary weight. In addition to a lot of fan-theories, people debate the meanings of this particular kind of show. It would be unfair to compare Game of Thrones to Star Trek: The Next Generation, for example. The latter was basically a straightforward weekly adventure, and it wasn’t out to tell a grand story. The budget was low, the effects were usually campy, and its survival from season to season was always a gamble. (Despite this, TNG is maybe the best sci-fi in history, but that’s a topic for another day.)

I’m not quite sure what to call this special category, but GoT shares it with three other “sibling” shows: Battlestar Galactica, Lost, and X-Files. So you’ll have to excuse my opening Romeo and Juliet reference, because this isn’t an article about Shakespeare, it’s actually an article about The Brothers Karamazov.

For those not in the know, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s epic tome centers on four brothers whose outlooks and personalities sum up what Dostoyevsky saw as emblematic of the changing times of 19th-Century Russia. Ivan the intellectual modernist, Alyosha the mystic, Dmitri the passionate, Smerdyakov the nihilist. These same traits map to Game of Thrones and its own brothers. So as GoT wraps up, we’re not without precedent in these kinds of junctures. Its siblings all had the nation by the gonads as they wrapped up, and we might learn something by reflecting on how they fared. Unfortunately, the signs are mixed.

First up is Battlestar Galactica. If these shows reflect the Karamazov brothers, then this show is surely the intellectual and modern-thinking Ivan. The ending was gutsy and brilliant. It was not without its detractors, but as a viewer, you really had the sense that the writers were building up to this specific ending all along. They didn’t tip their hand either. I had no idea how the show would close out until the absolute last episode. And they actually ended it. They didn’t try to have it both ways. They raised some fascinating questions in the interior seasons, and at the final curtain, all of them were put to rest. Yes, Starbuck and the two hallucinations of Gaius Baltar and Caprica Six were in fact angels of some sort, sent to lead humanity to its end. It wasn’t an “end” in a fire and brimstone kind of way. This end was more of a rebirth, but an end all the same. Humanity abandoned its star-faring technology and settled into a neolithic existence on pre-historic Earth. Admiral Adama taking off to find a peaceful place to die was one of the more remarkable moments in science fiction. Hats off to Battlestar Galactica. Hats deeply off.

Battlestar Galactica fighter

Is it supposed to look like an X-Wing? Probably. But BSG rose far above its clone-of-Star Wars roots.

Lost took a much worse turn. The crisp action and plot twists of the first seasons turned into an exercise of phoning-it-in by the last few episodes. And instead of righting the ship, the writers almost seemed to delight in all the loose-ends and unanswered questions. And I personally felt the disappointment worse than most. It was the first show I had ever binged, and at my job I was known as one of the primary lore-masters of all things Lost. I held court at the water-cooler, shaking my head with a benevolent disregard as my colleagues asked me about the feasibility of various fan-theories. “No, no, Walt can’t possibly be the smoke monster. Yes, interesting take, but misguided.”

After that steaming turd of a finale, I was determined to walk into work the next day with my head held high. But inwardly, I raged. At the end of the show, the assembled main characters just walk into a door of light and “move on,” with not a word said about the fate of the island, the Dharma Initiative, why Walt was so special or what the recurring numbers were about. I’m sure the writers didn’t want to alienate large parts of their audience by writing a controversial ending like Battlestar Galactica. So they did something far worse, which was to alienate the entire audience. For this crime, Lost is definitely the cowardly (and murderous) Karamazov brother, Smerdyakov.

Next is X-Files. This is the “Dmitri” of the four shows, all the way. Mulder is all passion, to the point of being kind of a rotten human being, just like Dmitri Karamazov. The sexual tension between Mulder and Scully lights up from Gillian Anderson hating Duchovny in real life. The ’90s post-Soviet glee put its stamp on the writing, when the US was fearless and feared, and when you get a good look at Chris Carter, with his wild hair and dilated pupils, you know that guy walks the walk when it comes to UFO conspiracies. And all that passion led… well, to nowhere, really.

X-Files cast

The X-Files cast. I love these people, despite it all.

The main arc of the show changed from UFOs to black alien oil, to faceless rebels, to super soldiers, to a doomsday-plague that turned out to be a dream. And it’s not even correct to say that the writers botched the end, because they’ve managed to shiv the series into a quantum twilight where it’s simultaneously ended and not ended. In fact, they’ve ended it three or four times, and each one is more of a shit-show than the one before. And you know what’s really Dmitri-esqe about this arrangement? I keep coming back for more. I’m totally in thrall to X-Files. Despite committing ever-greater acts of narrative psychopathy, X-Files always convinces me one more time to walk down the aisle and this time it will be different. And baby, I want to believe.

Which finally brings us to Game of Thrones. To continue the metaphor, if Smerdyakov is Lost, Dmitry is X-Files, and Ivan is Battlestar Galactica, that leaves one brother for Game of Thrones, which is Alyosha, the mystic, and the hero of Dostoyevsky’s yarn. Will GoT similarly prove to be the most noble of the four brothers?

The prognosis is not good. George R.R. Martin is apparently writing Winds of Winter one carbon-based molecule at time, and he’s currently on track to finish the book shortly before the universe undergoes entropic heat death. The suits at the studio are already searching for the next franchise, leaving David Benioff and D. B. Weiss to make some sense of the mess. So for better or worse, the show’s writers are now the de facto authors of the story. And the weird way that they rushed through Season 7 is a red flag. GoT seemed to lurch from politics and intrigue to a supernatural battle epic in the space of about ten seconds. Before Season 7 the true enemy was evil, corrupt people in places of power. Now, in a very Tolkien sort of way, the true enemy is an invincible dark lord with a freaking zombie dragon that shoots magic!

And, speaking of Tolkien, I really hope that GoT doesn’t follow the “end of magic” trope. Tolkien invented it, and did it the best. Now figure something else out. Bring magic back or re-establish Valyria or do something surprising. Hell, maybe the Night King should actually win. Maybe the all of the show’s commentary about human awfulness should build to a frozen extinction of humanity, and no one left to mourn us. As we stand on an inflection point in 2018 where Americans are about to wake up from their Fox News hangover and finally grasp the danger of global warming, an extinction-level-event might be the most poignant and timeliest way to end the GoT.

A bleached GoT dragon skull

A bleached GoT dragon skull. He looks like how we’ll probably feel when the show ends.

But that’s not what Benioff, Weiss et al. will give us. We’re going to get a comparatively safe and namby-pamby ending that passes the focus groups and leaves a few openings for future spin-offs. Daenerys will be queen, maybe one dragon will still be alive, maybe Jon Snow will actually die for real. Maybe some future strife will rumble from over the horizon and the Hound will drop a few C-bombs. Basically, it will be one standard deviation from the mean. So we’re not going to get the transcendence of Alyosha. We’re going to get another Smerdyakov, similar to the end of Lost. I’m ready for that, although I haven’t given up hope. And my wife hasn’t given up hope that Jason Momoa will miraculously return for a final bow.